27. Opposition from the trade unions



New Labour’s self-imposed adherence to strict Tory economic guidelines, particularly in the field of public expenditure, meant that the Blair government was compelled to chip away at the past gains of the working class. Therefore, although there was an initial honeymoon period, there was also growing discontent, particularly from former Labour voters. The Socialist Party sought to capitalise on this through its campaigns. We concentrated particularly on the issues affecting young people as well as the ongoing industrial battles and their reflection within the trade unions.

The trade union Unison assumed great importance to us. The continuing deindustrialisation of Britain led to the collapse and virtual disappearance in some areas of well-paid manufacturing and manual jobs. Local government, the civil service and the teaching profession became alternative sources of employment for young workers who previously would have followed their parents into industry. Over time this resulted in the same combative militant traditions built up over generations in the factories being expressed in these new workplaces which, moreover, were characterised more and more by factory-like conditions: large offices, bullying management, etc. Neoliberalism in general reinforced this and was buttressed by Tony Blair and New Labour. They clearly favoured the bosses over the trade unions.

The pages of the Socialist expressed this process clearly through its reports of the bitter resistance to the employers. In 1997 we reported on the events in Waltham Forest: “Len Hockey has worked at Whipps Cross Hospital since 1989 as a porter. Within a year he became a shop steward and is now Unison’s assistant branch secretary on the Whipps Cross site.” Len gave a picture of the battle that was unfolding: “Being a socialist is not all one-way traffic – people receiving your arguments and instantly rallying. You often incur a bit of opposition… So initially the ideas of socialism and building a left within the union were seen to be a bit irrelevant. There used to be almost unlimited overtime so the opportunities were there for increased earnings. As the Tory cuts bit, the mood began to change and hospital workers became more receptive to the Socialist Party’s ideas. During the poll tax struggle we had weekly workplace meetings, which involved 50-60 predominantly student nurses… We organised a demonstration of 400 [against privatisation] – Waltham Forest’s biggest labour movement demonstration for as long as I can remember.” As a result of this kind of work, “Five young porters subsequently came along to our local Socialist Party branch. This initiative spawned the joint union/community campaign, ‘Health in Crisis’.”1

This is just one example from hundreds of the painstaking, consistent work in which Socialist Party members were involved in the workplaces and communities. In a period that was not the most favourable they still argued for the ideas of socialism.

In industry and the trade unions the Socialist Party also fought for a real alternative for working people. Yes, trade union density in Britain had dropped from 55% to just over 30% when the first Blair government came to power. In the era of neoliberalism trade unions were confronting an entirely different situation to that which existed during the post-war boom period. Then, such was the strength of the workers’ organisations that in Italy, for instance, a national sliding scale of wages was won through the ‘scala mobile’. Those kinds of conditions have disappeared in Italy and elsewhere as meek union leaders capitulated to the capitalists’ offensive against the living standards and conditions of the working class.  There was, therefore, some similarity between what had happened to the ex-workers’ parties that had become bourgeoisified and the trade unions, although the process had not gone as far in the unions. The Socialist Party rejected the notion by some on the left that the trade unions were irredeemable and could not be changed. We wrote in Socialism Today: “The same processes [bourgeoisification] have also affected the unions although in this case there are quite clear limits to this process. Unlike the traditional workers’ parties, the unions still retain their dual character; the leadership has one foot in the camp of capitalism but rests on a working class base…

This role of the trade union leaders is not accidental. It is a product of their ideological capitulation, particularly reinforced by the collapse of Stalinism. The acceptance of the ‘market’ and the political outlook which flows from this is disastrous from the point of view of the working class. If you accept the capitalist market then the logic is to back the boss, and to see the ‘point of view’ of the government that supports the capitalist system. From this flows support for ‘teamworking’, outsourcing, privatisation.”

We pointed out that in a British Airways strike, Bill Morris, General Secretary of the TGWU, “in answer to the high-handed demands of the confrontational BA management for £42 million savings, [had] declared: ‘I believe in labour flexibility, but I also think that labour should have rights, dignity and security.’”2 Morris offered to make the same £42 million worth of ‘savings’ demanded by BA management, the only difference being on method. The management wanted to cut arbitrarily; the union leadership wished the same cuts could be carried out through ‘negotiations’. We explained that the standpoint of union leaders who ‘see the point’ of the employer not only causes confusion among the workers. It also results, for example, in the “scandalous spectacle of union leaders, in the recent Montupet strike in Northern Ireland, leading scabs across a picket line set up by members of their own union”.

So far to the right had some union leaders moved that there were some similarities to the situation described by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. He showed that there was a tendency for the union tops to fuse together with the capitalist state. Some left groups allegedly basing themselves on Trotsky’s analysis concluded that the trade union leadership had gone over completely to the side of capital and were now ‘the Labour lieutenants of capital’, to use the phrase of the American Marxist Daniel De Leon. We rejected such conclusions and held out the perspective that the unions could be pushed in a leftward direction if Marxists and socialists, in collaboration with the rank and file, fought the right wing on a clear programme and through action, by using the method of broad lefts where this was appropriate.3